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Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell says…

In this interview

On marrying her wife

On taking her books in a new direction

On the influence of her childhood

Patricia Cornwell: ‘Finally, I feel rooted somewhere’

Last Updated: 1:18PM GMT 05 Dec 2007
Patricia Cornwell: “I had been taught that homosexuals would go to hell”

In her first British interview since ‘marrying’ her female partner, Patricia Cornwell explains why she kept quiet about her sexuality for years – and how her new life is transforming her forensically gory novels. Cassandra Jardine reports

Patricia Cornwell is cloaked in security to an extraordinary extent, even by American standards. She may need it at book signings in the States, where weirdos with guns and knives have turned up to meet the crime writer whose graphic descriptions of gouged flesh have made her the best-selling female writer in the world after JK Rowling, but it’s strange to encounter this level of caution in a London hotel.

In the lift, I’m accompanied by a spookily silent man in a suit – what’s that bulge under his jacket? – and on either side of the door to her suite, two further stooges stand sentry. When admitted to the inner sanctum, I find a small woman with spiky hair, who tells me she employs undercover security, too, presumably wandering around the lobby.

“It’s not about fear,” she says in a voice that combines briskness with the drawl of her Southern childhood.

“I won’t put myself in a position where I’m vulnerable.”

It takes me a while to discover what she means by that, because it’s tempting to assume that Cornwell is as hard-boiled as the characters in her Kay Scarpetta books, the 15th of which has just been published.

Dr Scarpetta is a forensic pathologist who investigates the most grisly of murders. Fearless and detached, some reviewers have called her a “tough broad” – but that makes her creator angry.

“Scarpetta is an elegant intellectual with great depths of feeling which you don’t always see,” she says.

Since Cornwell admits to being very like Scarpetta – with touches of the character’s switched-on young niece Lucy thrown in – it suggests hidden depths to a writer who can also appear steel-plated.

She started her career as a crime reporter, before moving on to work in the medical examiner’s office in Richmond, Virginia, and is as familiar with morgues as others are with supermarkets.

She flies helicopters, rides motorbikes and is terrier-like with her causes. Several years ago she set out to prove that the British Impressionist painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper, and she is still on the case.

“The Sickert Trust had better watch out,” she warns tantalisingly, “when copyright expires on his letters in 2012.”

As for the cyber-stalker whom she recently successfully sued, she hisses: “I haven’t finished with him yet.”

Perhaps she has needed to act fierce. She’s so tiny that her high-heeled patent biker boots scarcely reach the ground from the hotel sofa. As a young tennis player, she tells me, “I had to play with the boys as there was no girls’ team, and they kept hitting balls right at me.”

When she started writing in 1990, she admits that she felt insecure.

“I had a lot to prove and probably a lot of anger and fear from my childhood. But I’m 51 now and not the same person.”

She’s warmer and friendlier than I expected – but perhaps this is a new development, just as it is in Kay Scarpetta’s fictional life. This latest book has taken two years instead of the usual one to produce, partly because of a leaky roof at Cornwell’s home in Boston, but largely because she wanted to change direction.

“An old college friend told my ex-husband Charlie – who’s my editor – that he wasn’t sure he liked my main characters. I thought, ‘You know what? I don’t either.’ I realised that the later books lacked the warm element of character interaction.”

It is too much of a coincidence that, in the past two years, she has developed a domestic life herself.

Her latest Scarpetta novel, Book of the Dead, is dedicated to “Dr Staci Gruber, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, and Associate Director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, McLean Hospital”.

Dr Gruber’s professional expertise is evident in the book’s scientific detail, but the relationship is more than professional. In February 2005, the two women were joined in a same-sex marriage, newly permitted in the state of Massachusetts.

Until now, Cornwell has refused to speak up for gay women. When I ask her to confirm the marriage, she replies only: “Yep.” But when I ask what difference it has made to her, she pauses for a moment, then opens up about her personal life in a way she never has before.

“It has made a difference in two ways,” she says.

“Like Scarpetta, I finally feel rooted somewhere. I feel a sense of responsibility and stability that I didn’t have before. I hadn’t been in a long-term relationship since I got divorced in 1988 and it’s hard to live that way. Being with someone who is smart and gives good advice adds tremendously wonderful elements to your life.

“What happened was that I went to Harvard to research neuroscience and was directed to meet with Dr Gruber because she’s so eminently respected. It was one of those things: you meet someone when you’re not looking. I’ve never been a soapbox person for gay rights, but now I’m in a same-sex marriage I tend to be more open, because I am outraged that it should be illegal in other states.”

“If we were outside of Massachusetts and Staci were in a horrible car wreck, a hospital could forbid me from seeing her. The federal government does not honour same-sex marriage, so couples can’t file joint tax returns and, in terms of death benefits, people have to go to extraordinary lengths with lawyers to try to make sure that their partner isn’t evicted from the home.”

There is a movement, she says, to change the American constitution to ban same-sex unions. Its supporters say that if marriage is allowed between homosexuals, unions between people and animals will be next.

“Marry your dog – what kind of insanity is that? I don’t do things that are illegal. I pay my taxes, I give millions to charity, so why am I less than other people? This comes from the far-Right, conservative Christians who spew forth all these rigid ‘thou shalt nots’.”

Cornwell understands those people because she was brought up among them. When she was five, her father, a lawyer, walked out on Christmas Day in 1961, ignoring her attempts to cling to his leg.

“When I was in second grade, my mother moved from Miami to this evangelical conservative environment in western North Carolina, two miles down the road from Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth. I was the only child of divorced parents in my entire school. We were made to feel like sinners coming from a broken home. I felt isolated.”

Matters got worse when her mother succumbed to depression and the young Patsy Daniels, as Cornwell was then known, was fostered by an unkind woman who wouldn’t let her keep her beloved dog with her.

In those days, she didn’t realise that she had homosexual proclivities because she had never even heard that women could be gay.

“I knew something wasn’t right in high school because boys would ask me out and I didn’t feel the same way about them as other girls. But it was only at college that I saw women who were gay.”

While studying English at Davidson College in North Carolina, and just as she started analysing her own feelings, she “honestly fell in love” with her male professor, Charlie Cornwell, who was 17 years her senior.

After 10 years together, Cornwell divorced him. In 1990, she published her first mystery novel, Postmortem.

“It was only afterwards that I had my first gay encounter, which was completely accidental: I became close friends with someone and it progressed. Then I realised ‘Uh-oh…’, but I kept on dating men, hoping that I just hadn’t met the right one, because I didn’t want it to be true.”

“It flew in the face of my upbringing: I had been taught that homosexuals would go to hell because they were perverts. And I didn’t want people talking about me and calling me names. It’s no fun to worry about holding hands in a public place and that some redneck is going to follow you in a pick-up truck and show you what it’s like to be with a man.”

She kept her lesbian relationships secret for some years, until outed by two people who she believes were jealous of her success.

“My mother, God bless her, said ‘You’ve disgraced our family’, though now she’s fine about it.”

Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, who had encouraged Cornwell to write, was far more understanding.

“I flew to see her, saying there would be things in the news. She just said, ‘So, honey, what else have you been doing?’?”

Most sensational of the “things in the news” were the reports of the trial in 1997 of Eugene Bennett, a former FBI agent who attempted to murder his wife after her affair with Cornwell. After all that, you’d think the writer would be relieved to be openly married. Not entirely.

“I live in a society where, when I’m invited as guest of honour, I’m not asked if I want to bring my partner. At dinner parties, you feel half the people round the table hate gays. Wherever you go, you know people are talking about you – it would be so different if I were to turn up with a big, strapping husband. But I figure that, if I’m honest about it, perhaps society will change.”

In America at present, she doesn’t see much prospect of that, so she keeps her security tight and tries to concentrate on the forensic science, intricate plots and sassy characters that have sold millions of books. Kay Scarpetta is in many ways how she would like to be: more “intelligent” and less “volatile”.

No doubt it is therapeutic for Cornwell to assume the tougher skin of her leading lady, but writing the books is emotionally gruelling. Recently, in a morgue, she saw the corpse of a child who had been starved.

“I started crying. I thought, ‘How can anyone do that? Especially when his sister was well-fed.'” During the writing of the book, a bird flew into her window pane – and she cried for two days over its injuries.

Such softer feelings are seeping into her books.

“In the next one, Kay will have a stable relationship,” she reveals. “It’s time for her to have a home, a garden and feelings.”

After that, who knows? Soon, she could be baking apple pie.

Patricia Cornwell’s extraordinary life

The imaginative roots of Patricia Cornwell’s bestselling thrillers lie in her own gothic life. With The Times serialising her new novel, The Front, over the next two weeks, she talks to Janice Turner about looking on the dark side

Patricia Cornwall

Patricia Cornwall

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After finishing Patricia Cornwell’s novel Postmortem, about a serial killer who stalks and slashes lone women, I wander down to the basement gym of my New York hotel. Usually I’d be pleased to find it empty, but instead I prickle with unease: I imagine some masked psycho bursting in, dumbbells and skipping ropes plied as weapons, my toe tagged, my innards pored over by Cornwell’s pathologist heroine, Dr Kay Scarpetta. Freaked out, I scurry back to my room.

When I tell Cornwell this she is delighted. “That’s good!” she exclaims. “If ever you don’t feel comfortable, you should trust your gut. There have been great studies of victims who survive and they all say the same thing, ‘I got a funny feeling and I didn’t listen.’” What I don’t say is that I’ve used that gym alone before, untroubled; it was Cornwell’s unblinking brand of rape-homicide fiction – a woman is almost decapitated in Body of Evidence, peeled in From Potter’s Field, “water-boarded” in Book of the Dead – which got me, well, a bit paranoid.

But you wouldn’t use the P-word with Patricia Cornwell. Perhaps when you have attended hundreds of postmortems and crime scenes, spent the past 20 years immersed in the spatter, reek and gore of forensic science, and turned it into 20 bestselling novels and an estimated $100 million fortune, you evaluate risk differently. The imagination that made her the most successful crime writer in the world forbids her to take chances. Today, her bodyguard, an ex-Marine called Jimmy, waits outside in a black Porsche Cayenne. Even when walking her dogs with a friend, she takes one of her several handguns: “What if a bunch of drunk guys stopped their car?” Her public appearances are policed by hard-bodied men whispering into their cuffs, and her home, near Cambridge, Massachusetts, has elaborate camera systems and a permanent security detail: “There are a lot of wacky people out there and it only takes one…”

Cornwell’s friends call her Mrs Worst-Case Scenario, but she insists: “What I worry about is legitimate.” So if, say, she is renting a house by the ocean and has the balcony door open she’ll barricade it with a chair: “I’m convinced that lots of people who were supposed to have committed suicide off a balcony were really accidents.”

In person, she shows the strain of living on perpetual high alert. She is watchful and intense, seldom smiling, but then suddenly gives a magnificently frank and generous answer she must pore over regretfully later, given the fusillade of e-mails I receive from her agent’s office and then Cornwell herself, fretful of misinterpretation. She gives the impression of barely containing many powerful, competing emotions within a very thin skin.

The interview had been set for New York, but within an hour of arriving I got a call saying that she had a fever of 102F, and wouldn’t be chartering a Learjet down from Boston after all. Usually with American big shots, this means a doomed trip or at least a thumb-twiddling week until the star rallies. But Cornwell, being both tough and kind, agrees to dose herself on flu meds and meet me nearer her home, at the Harvard Faculty Club, a grand and sumptuous building filled with antiques, burnished silver, trompe l’oeil and dark, polished wood; the place where vast wealth and academia meet.

We are only allowed here at all because her partner, Dr Staci Gruber, whom she married three years ago (and to whom Book of the Dead is dedicated), is assistant professor of psychiatry. Indeed the faculty club, with its rigid exclusivity, is a leitmotiv in her new book, The Front. It is where her new hero, the lowly but virtuous, second-hand-suited state investigator Win Garano, is summoned to take orders from his manipulative district attorney boss, Monique Lamont. “Win doesn’t belong here,” Cornwell says. “He has a learning disability and he could never have gotten into Harvard, yet he’s smart enough he could have gone anywhere.” Likewise, for all her success and wealth, and the fact that two blocks away is the multi-million-dollar collection of Walter Sickert artworks she donated to Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, Cornwell is also an outsider, a status she seems both to resent and relish. “I tried to get into grad school here and they turned me down,” she says. “I came from a little town in the mountains of North Carolina and I’d never heard of anyone who went to Harvard. I’m around people who are doctors and lawyers and scientists and forensic pathologists. I feel insecure about my education. It doesn’t make any difference in what I write, but it probably keeps me from being a snob. I have so many things wrong with me, and it’s probably a good thing or I’d be an asshole.”

Cornwell is the most image-aware of authors. Few interviews fail to mention her Armani suit and professional grooming. But today, straight from her sick bed, she has the kick-ass look of an off-duty FBI agent: navy combat pants, biker boots and a red body-warmer, which, like a chunky ring on her right hand, bears the Scarpetta insignia. “Oh, I’m a slob today. You get a rare experience.” She is lean, sinewy and toned, but her face has been tightened and evened by surgery, Botox and collagen until, without make-up at 51, she looks like a slightly freeze-dried Meg Ryan. “Listen, honey,” she says in her Carolina drawl, “my goal is to make sure before I die I won’t decompose. Sure I’ve had work on my face. I’ll get anything done I can! I don’t want to look old. Does anyone?”

This is the breezy pragmatism of the utterly self-made: she transformed her destiny, why stop at her face? Indeed, all Cornwell’s tough talk and her obsessive self-protection are products of a gothic childhood in which she learnt to take care of herself because no one else would. When she was five, her father, a lawyer, left her family for good, Cornwell clinging pitifully to his legs. Her mother tumbled into despair and then mental illness. Cornwell seems unforgiving, even disgusted by this weakness. She recalls as a young child being molested by a private security guard near her home. “And the next thing I know is there is a police officer at my house and I’m at some kind of hearing at the court house and strangers are passing my little red shorts around, the ones he’d put his hands inside. I feel fear and that what I did was bad. My mother’s only way to deal with it is to take me to a toy store afterwards. And never to talk about what happened except to tell me I can’t ever buy a pair of red shorts because it will give [me] bad memories. Why not just say nothing?”

When Cornwell’s mother needed to be hospitalised she drove Cornwell and her two brothers to the nearby home of preacher Billy Graham. His wife, Ruth, welcomed them in and found foster care, even though the family were strangers. Ruth Graham remained Cornwell’s beloved mentor until her death last June, sending her cheques at college, guiding her through adolescent anorexia and, above all, encouraging her to write. But Cornwell’s foster mother, a missionary, terrified Cornwell, forbade her to leave the house, tormented her, fed her food she found disgusting. “I probably kill this lady every time I write a book,” she says grimly. “I find some way or form. She’s dead now and she deserves it.”

Cornwell never read a single murder mystery while growing up, but she was drawn to the macabre: her first poem, an ode to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, lingered on his wounds. She believes it is her own fear of loss that underpins her work. Her interest in crime was only ignited after college when she found a reporting job on The Charlotte Observer and was assigned the police beat. “I was seeing car accidents and murders. That is what infected me with crime. I was so horrified I tried to figure it out.”

So she took a job as a data programmer at a morgue. Forensics, the science of reconstructing for court a whole life from a fibre, a fleck of paint, a nick on bone, echoed her childhood passion for archaeology. The morgue was run by a woman medical examiner, whom Cornwell begged to let her attend an autopsy. She even became a volunteer policewoman every weekend for three years to win permission. “I viewed it as a clinical scientific experience,” she says. “I tried not to focus on the gore or the dead body part of it.”

Her first published novel, Postmortem, created a new genre, the forensic detective thriller, which begat the television shows CSI, Silent Witness and Waking the Dead. She defends her gruesome work, saying that she is giving voice to victims of a forgotten war. “We are at war with crime,” she says. “Every day someone is murdered or attacked. These are acts of terrorism but against our own people. Is it not an act of terrorism when someone goes to shoot 30 students at a school?”

And yet, considering most real-life murder victims are young males, it is striking that all of Cornwell’s are female (a few are children) and that the murders invariably involve a sexual motive. Is she avenging real crimes against women or is she a titillator? There is no doubt her descriptions of brutalised female corpses and the bizarre, fetishistic things her villains do to them – tattoo them with handprints, remove eyeballs and fill them with sand – can read like some outré type of pornography. She focuses on sexual violence because “it is the worst. It is the absolute degradation of a human being. It is very rare, unless it is a domestic situation, for a woman to be murdered without also being sexually assaulted.”

But does she not worry that she will excite where she is trying to disgust? “Men can easily get off on this stuff in the newspapers. I try to write about crime not to celebrate it and make it sexy, but to condemn it. But I’m going to show it to you. Because it’s not pretty. It’s ugly and nasty and painful and frightening.”

To her, there is power in knowledge; she would rather “know what goes on than merrily go on my way, thinking it’s never going to happen to me”. So she still attends a few autopsies each year – “Because if I don’t go visit the dead, then they’re not gonna talk to me any more” – and has experienced most things she writes about, spending days at the “Body Farm”, a forensic college at the University of Tennessee where scientists observe decomposing corpses, which gave the title to her fifth Scarpetta novel. With Book of the Dead, however, she stopped short of cooking human flesh on a grill so she could describe its smell. “Although,” she says, “I could have got someone at the Body Farm to let me try it.” For all her professed seriousness, you can’t help thinking she relishes the gore.

It is often assumed that the sharp-dressed, meticulous Scarpetta is Cornwell herself, but rather she is her own idealised mother. “Scarpetta is a fantasy of what I wanted around me when I was a kid,” she says. “When I was held hostage in that foster home, if Scarpetta had walked in that house, she’d have said, ‘You’re out of here!’ She would have saved me. That patrol man would never have done that to me. Or if he had, she’d have cleaned his clock in court. Unlike my mother, she’d have known what to do.”

Cornwell can be seen in Lucy, Scarpetta’s niece, who evolves over the series from a neglected, angry, geeky child into a lesbian action figure, flying choppers, shooting guns from the back of her motorbike, joining the FBI and hostage-negotiating teams. Like Lucy, Cornwell owns an oversized Breitling pilot’s watch, a Harley and a Ferrari, and has learnt to fly a helicopter. And, although once married to a man – her college professor, 17 years her senior – Cornwell has been out, or rather outed, since 1992, when she had an affair with Marguerite Bennett, an FBI agent, and was exposed by Bennett’s jealous husband and fellow agent, Eugene. A shoot-out ensued between the Bennetts in a church and Eugene was jailed in 1997. But the case refuses to go away, with an account of the affair, Twisted Triangle, published this month; Cornwell views it as a last-ditch money-making venture.

The outing was painful, but it expelled the poison of secrets. These days Cornwell can barely utter a sentence without mentioning her partner, Gruber, whom she met while researching Book of the Dead. “The first time I saw her it was just like the air shifted in the room,” she says. She tells me how Gruber, 40, a vegetarian, has kicked her, a passionate cook, out of the kitchen to concoct delicious tofu dishes. She recites Gruber’s sheaf of Ivy League degrees, which she finds mighty classy. It helps also that Gruber, a neuropsychologist, is an expert in bipolar disorder, for which Cornwell has taken medication for years, and therefore understands her volatile highs and lows.

The couple were married in 2005 in Massachusetts, the only US state that permits gay marriage. It was a private ceremony because, Cornwell says, with sadness, “I wouldn’t invite my family. They know about it, but we don’t talk about it.” Her mother and Ruth and Billy Graham all accepted Gruber. “The people at the centre of the evangelical universe are kind and non-judgmental. It is the rings around Saturn you have to watch out for.”

Her marriage has radicalised her politics. A long-time Republican donor who was close to George Bush senior, she will vote Democrat in the presidential elections – for Hillary Clinton, she hopes. What she calls her “pilot light of anger” has flared up against the religious right. “I didn’t used to be political. I used to keep my mouth shut. We have politicians who want to overturn the constitution [to invalidate gay marriage] and elected officials who say homosexuals are more dangerous than terrorists. I don’t feel good about the far right at all, so much of their creed is discriminatory. I don’t care how they worship. Why should they care about how I live my life? Jesus would have been happy to carry a rainbow flag.”

When Cornwell was growing up her mother once declared that the worst thing in life was to turn out a homosexual alcoholic: “And I grew up to be gay with a DUI [Driving Under the Influence conviction],” she laughs grimly. Cornwell totalled her car after a drunken night in Los Angeles, just after her success had rocketed her from a salary at the morgue of $27,000 to a $1 million advance. Living in Malibu, she hung out with Demi Moore, Bruce Willis and Woody Harrelson. She calls this her Elvis period, a folie de grandeur in which she scooped up properties – she owned five at one time – and went on epic shopping sprees in which she bought expensive clothes, cars and jewels. It was insecurity, she says. “I was scared to death! I didn’t know how to behave around superstars. I didn’t know how to handle the money. I had no boundaries. I didn’t even know how much I had.” During that period of her life, she was hot, with movie studios desperate to make a Scarpetta film. Of all the blockbuster authors, she is the only one whose work has never been filmed. Stars dropped out: Jodie Foster (Cornwell’s first choice) declined, Demi Moore’s interest faded. There is talk that Cornwell was too controlling of her vision, but she says the scripts were never good enough. And now, with a glut of forensic dramas on television, one suspects that Scarpetta’s big-screen moment may have passed.

Cornwell has pared down her life and no longer feels the need for an office of eight people to carry out her ideas. But she still has that limitless American thinking and epic philanthropy, which means that she chucks $1 million donations at police crime scene academies and scoops up the college and medical bills of deserving cases who cross her path. She understands, and enjoys wielding, the magical power of money. It is also therapeutic, she says, this giving. I ask if she regrets never having children and she says: “I want to be my own mother and take care of myself. And my own father. He never paid a penny, never did anything for me.” Providing for nieces and nephews, paying their way through college, being the strong parent she herself lacked, has healed her inner, neglected little girl.

After our interview, we are both making use of the extravagant rest rooms of the Harvard Faculty Club when Cornwell calls to me from an adjacent stall. “You know one of the worst things about visiting a crime scene? You can’t use the bathrooms because it destroys evidence. You can be busting to go for hours.” She clearly loves all that police procedure, relishing her place behind the yellow tape. And she is a little in love, too, with her own image and mystique. Giving me a lift in her Porsche 4×4, she remarks that it has a gun turret. She’s joking, but I have to ask to make sure. And as we say goodbye, she gives me her bodyguard’s number in case I need help while in town. “Or if you want someone killing,” she adds drily. I like her a lot: I just wouldn’t want her for an enemy.

In this interview the writer noticed several of the same things I did about the book that came out in 2005, Predator:

I’m not weird, I’m just wired differently

An abusive father, a lesbian affair that ended in a shoot-out, bi-polar disorder — Patricia Cornwell’s life is as convoluted and disturbing as one of her plots

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Patricia Cornwell, who writes grisly crime novels but counts herself on the side of the angels — avenging angels, naturally — prides herself on her kindness. She rescues dogs from neglectful pet shops, helps young writers and gives millions of dollars to charity. She even does me a favour by saving me the trouble of having to describe her. Scanning her last novel, Trace, in preparation for talking to her about her latest, the already bestselling Predator, I come across this: “She is an attractive woman in a powerful way, not a big woman but strong-looking, in a midnight-blue pantsuit and midnight-blue blouse that sharpen her handsome features and set off her short blond hair. Her hands are strong and graceful . . .”This goddess is actually her habitual heroine, the forensic pathologist Dr Kay Scarpetta, but the moment Cornwell enters her suite in the Dorchester I recognise her, even though she is wearing not midnight blue but a grey Armani trouser suit and even though, at 49, she is some years Kay’s senior.

Like Scarpetta, too, she is careful about keeping this well-toned body of hers from harm. I would, for instance, be astounded if the big guy who greets me at the door is, as he is described, her publicist and not, in fact, her bodyguard.

Cornwell, who owns a small arsenal of handguns back in America, has been stalked by fans, some of whom have brought knives and firearms to book signings.

She says that, like many wealthy writers, she attracts “predators”. Does she think she has weird readers? “Definitely. Not only do I have ‘fans’ who get obsessed with me, I have ‘fans’ who get obsessed with my characters, as if they’re real. They get involved in strange activities on the internet.” That is weird, though other, less fanatical, readers of her oeuvres might feel that she is the weirdo.

When in 1990 she published her first Scarpetta novel, Postmortem, Richmond, Virginia, had a high enough murder rate. Since then she has populated it with serial killers with such names as Mr Nobody, Wolfman and, in Predator, Hog, aka Hand of God. Here is one of Predator’s corpses: “The victim has raggedly cut, short black hair that is damp and still gory with bits of brain tissue. There is almost nothing left of her face. It looks as if a small bomb blew up inside her head, which is rather much what happened.”

“Yes,” she says, “I’m graphic about violence. I make it painful. But I do not cross a certain line. In Predator, when you have the hostage situation, I had a difficult time dealing with those scenes because they’re pretty awful, but I could have made them a whole lot worse.”

To illustrate her sensitivity, she tells me how she walked out of a “death investigation school” when a forensic scientist played the class videotapes of a torture. “To witness that pain and horror, the fear, is beyond words. I’ll never, never forget that. I could never do that to my readers.”

The point of her work, she says, is to speak up for the victims of crime. She writes, she suggests, in the tradition of her distant relative Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

But her empathies lie most obviously with Scarpetta, like Cornwell Miami-born, like her divorced and like her a labourer in the forensic vineyard, although Cornwell’s six years at the medical examiner’s office in Richmond, after a youth as crime reporter on the Charlotte Observer, were spent in its IT department. Scarpetta and Cornwell also have “issues” with their late fathers, though at this point the plot thickens. While Scarpetta says in Body of Evidence that her career in pathology can be traced back to “the terrible crime of my father’s death” (leukaemia, actually), Cornwell traces her own motivations to the psychological abuse she suffered from her father, Sam Daniels, a lawyer who walked out on the family one Christmas Day 44 years ago. “He was very analytical and had a pristine, sharp mind, but his problem was that emotionally he was unable to connect with people, and could be very cruel.” A sociopath? “I don’t know what his diagnosis would be, but he didn’t seem to feel much remorse when he did very harmful things. He wasn’t even nice to me on his deathbed. We knew it was the last time we’d see each other; he grabbed my brother’s hand and mouthed ‘I love you’, but he never touched me. All he did was write on a legal pad ‘How’s work?’ ”

It was, all in all, a lousy childhood. At the age of 5 she appeared before the grand jury in her home town to give evidence against a neighbourhood security guard who “was getting started on some activity that would not have been very good if my brother hadn’t ridden up on his bicycle and scared him away”.

After her father left, her mother moved the family to Montreat, North Carolina, but, unable to cope, was treated in hospital for depression. The foster parents Patricia was sent to turned out to be as cruel as her father; her dog died of neglect. By her late teens she was anorexic. How on earth, from this wreckage, does such a successful adult emerge? She offers two explanations. The first is the Graham family, as in the evangelist Billy and his wife Ruth, who befriended her in Montreat and encouraged her to write. And the second? “The things that happened to me propelled me in a direction of realising that I must be able to take care of myself because nobody else was going to. I didn’t want to feel powerless again. Whether it’s being molested at 5 or being in foster homes, you have no control.”Is it because she fears ceding control that, since the end of her marriage to Charles Cornwell, a college professor 17 year her senior, she has not been prepared to share her life? “No, I am prepared to do it. Actually I’m in a stable long-term relationship that I won’t go into detail about, if nothing else to protect the identity of the other person.”

She is known to have had at least one lesbian affair. I ask if her lover is a woman. “Yes. So to all these people who think that I’m all screwed up about relationships: I’m in one.” For how long? “I feel for ever, that’s as much as I’ll say. But if you’re in a healthy relationship, it’s not about power. You shouldn’t be with somebody who is trying to take away your power. It should be about empowerment.”

And so we return to those disempowered by the misfortune of being murdered. My reservation about her work is not that her thrillers are exactly heartless, or that their hardboiled prose sometimes reads facetiously, but that the plots are too incredible to have much relationship with real life. Mind you, her own life has been has been pretty far-fetched: her late twenties were particularly eventful. After the success of Postmortem she bought five houses and who knows how many cars in a year. Then, after an evening out with Demi Moore, who was down to play Scarpetta in a film, she crashed her Mercedes, was convicted of drink-driving and sentenced to 28 days in a treatment centre. Even more spectacular was an affair she conducted between 1991 and 1992 with an FBI forensics instructor, a married woman, Margo Bennett. A few years later Margo’s now estranged but still jealous husband, also a former FBI agent, lured Margo to a church and threatened to kill its minister. Margo arrived to find the pastor with a sack over his head and Gene Bennett brandishing a gun. Margo fired her own gun and Gene was jailed for 23 years. “I wish he’d stay there for the rest of his life. He’s very dangerous,” Cornwell says. And, no, she does not talk to Margo any more, because there are toxic people in one’s life whom one needs to cut out.

It is to her credit that she is back on good terms with Charles, her ex, and that she has healed a rift with Ruth Graham, who took against the biography Cornwell wrote about her but, really, Cornwell is one of the least sentimental American females I have met. She talks big about her powers of sympathy but her gift, in conversation, is for polemic. She sounds off on issues big (her increasingly bigoted country) and small (Tom Cruise, for condemning psychiatric drugs).

Then there is Jack the Ripper. Three years ago she wrote a nonfiction work, Portrait of a Killer, unveiling him as the painter Walter Sickert. It was subtitled Jack the Ripper: Case Closed. Alas, art historians and Ripperolgists were as one in deciding that the case remained wide open. This summer Cornwell, who has spent a fortune buying Sickertalia and subjecting it to chemical analysis, took out full-page ads in the British press defending herself. Yet having read the book, all I am convinced of is that Sickert was an unpleasant man unhealthily interested in the Ripper case, as was much of London. I tell her that by using Sickert’s name interchangeably with the Ripper’s, the book denies the artist the presumption of innocence.

“Well, maybe I should have stated that more objectively. But I’ve no doubt that Sickert was the Ripper,” she says. The problem is that much of Sickert’s work is still in copyright and she can’t reproduce it. An example is a series of drawings of a woman. The last one had been stabbed through 17 or 18 times with a pencil. “There is no explanation except that he looked at her and looked at her and then for some reason turned her around in his mind, took his pencil and went bam, bam.”

And yet, she says, she has mellowed toward Jack the Sickert. “I am no longer in favour of the death penalty. That’s been completely reversed in my thinking from doing the research I have into the science of psychiatry with Predator.”

Having decided with Predator to push forensic science towards the “unexplored frontier” of the criminal brain, she has concluded that the mind is formed by nature and nurture acting upon each other. This does not mean that a person is chemically doomed to become a psychopathic murderer, only that some people “are wired differently”.

“I’ve had my own difficulties. My wiring’s not perfect and there are ways that you can stabilise that. I have certain things that run in my own ancestry. It’s not unusual for great artistic people to have bipolar disorder, for example.”

Is she bipolar? “The diagnosis goes back and forth but I’m pretty sure that I am.” Does she take Lithium? “No, I take a mood stabiliser.” And if she came off it? “I’d turn into Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” What? “Just kidding. No, I wouldn’t feel as good. Maybe one minute you feel kind of low, another sort of hyper.”

So is Cornwell weird? Actually, she’s rather fun, but “differently wired”. Let’s just admire the sparks that fly off her circuitry into her books. With her life, most of us would have fused yonks ago.